Saturday, May 14, 2011

Sebold Part Trois - Conclusion

First off, a Lovely Bones update. Barry and I did see the movie recently and we both really enjoyed it. I do wish there would have been a little bit more done with Susie in Heaven parts, but I felt the same way reading the book so no big loss there! Still, some very nice acting and overall the film stayed very true to the book so if you've read the book and want to see a visual interpretation or if you're more of a movie person and it helps you to see the movie first, either way, I think you'll like it.

Also, for anyone interested in the special edition slipcovered set of Lovely Bones I mentioned in Pt 1 of this Sebold series... I bought a copy myself and below are just a couple of pics out of several in the special edition part. As I mentioned before, the set comes with a hardcover edition of The Lovely Bones and an additonal box that has the first few chapters of the novel interspersed with images of actual missing children, some cases solved, some not, as well a list of the childrens' names and info (to hopefully help close the still-open cases, one way or the other). Proceeds from the sale of these special editons benefit the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. By the way, these images are printed on some sort of plastic or maybe its vellum, but folds out so that the chapters between the pictures are still readable - though it comes with a hardback edition of the full novel so this part may just be for collector's novelty / sense of charity:

Now onto the conclusion of this Sebold series.  Last book in the lot is The Almost Moon, a story (that is rather disturbing at first, until you start reading into the backstory) about a woman in her early 50s who has been taking care of her mentally declining mother for years and one day suddenly up and decides to strangle her to death with a bath towel. As I said with Lovely Bones, I'm not giving anything away here as the very first sentence in the book is "When all is said and done, killing my mother came easily." From there, the story is basically Helen having an "oh crap" moment once the legal ramifications start running through her head, thus pushing her to spend the hours following the murder trying to figure out how she can stay out of prison.. Yeah, even if you mean well, murder / mercy killing is still pretty illegal, girl!

I've noticed in all of these books that Sebold clearly doesn't like to waste time sugar coating things, making them sound "not so bad" - she just plows right into the story with the attitude of "If you don't like it, you can read something else" which I actually really respect! Now I know, seeing that first line, you might say OMG! What am I reading?? which was my initial reaction (particularly since I began reading this book the day after Mother's Day, making me feel particularly guilty!) but if you give it a chance and let Sebold tell the story, you actually start to understand Helen's (the woman who killed her mother) point of view.

The Almost Moon is a book in which the entire story takes place in the space of 24 hours. Interestingly, this book took Sebold five years to write. ***One reason you should not get into writing books solely for the money, as unpredictable as the writing process is, you better love what you're doing!***  The title refers to a comment Helen's father makes to her one night when she is a young girl, about how some things are like the moon, sometimes you only see a sliver of it (an "almost moon") but you know the rest of it is there, that there is more than meets the eye, more going on in the shadows. Helen, in later years, sees this as a metaphor for her life.

An "Almost Moon"

Helen, after killing her mother, goes back and explains to the reader what had transpired over the years to lead up to such a decision. She starts off by talking admirably about her mother's modeling days as a red-headed lingerie model (judging from the descriptions of the lingerie, I'm guessing it was in the late 40s, early 50s) when she meets Helen's father who is understandably drawn to her {a redhead in lacy underthings?? I don't know, Barry, does that still work these days?? ; - ) } and pretends to be a photographer in order to meet her. They hit it off and consequently marry, Helen's father goes to work for the local water dept. and somewhere in there, Helen's mother develops a serious case of agoraphobia and decides she can't leave the house anymore unless under the protection of several towels or blankets to hide her face from the world she believes is constantly viewing and judging her. SIDENOTE: For those of you that have read Sebold's memoir, LUCKY, she used some of her own mother's "quirks" as character traits of Helen's mother, in particular the chest rubbing during panic/anxiety attacks, she even describes them pretty much the same way in both books.

As if this wasn't enough to cope with, Helen's father  tries to be the stable parent, taking Helen for drives in his Oldsmobile, playing games with her and always wearing a smile. But even he starts displaying some mental quirks of his own, some moments of dark behavior, though the story only really hints at his possible mental illness. At one point, the young Helen is told that her father "went to visit friends and family in Ohio" but its clear he's been temporarily institutionalized. Either way, young Helen feels that she's pretty much left to care for her mother on her own, a responsibility that carries on through Helen's adult life, affecting her friendships, work opportunities, and even her relationship with her husband and daughters. This element of the story had me contemplating how far "family crazy" has a reach. How much mental illness is genetic preposition and how much is a result of circumstances and outside stimuli? I'm sure there's been plenty of dissertations written on the very subject but that's what I was wondering, comparing the personal histories of both of Helen's parents. It didn't seem like Helen's mother got "sick" until after marriage and Helen's father seemed to come a bit unhinged trying to protect and take care of his wife, but it's not clear to me if Sebold was hinting that the father also had issues, pre-dating the marriage, that were just overshadowed by his wife's. Either way, poor kid stuck in the middle of that!

1952 Oldsmobile

Thankfully, Helen finds an honestly stable adult in her neighbor, Mr. Forrest, a character I wish Sebold would have expanded because he seemed so cool! Mr. Forrest is the one man in the neighborhood who has maintained a friendship with Helen's mother, despite her agoraphobia. I found myself thinking I would have loved to have been friends with this guy! He raised King Charles Spaniels, drank port wine and gin and tonics, collected / read antique books, had an intellectual wit to him, always dressed nicely, even to just take a stroll around the neighborhood and on top of everything, drove a vintage green Jaguar convertible! He offers to teach young Helen to drive, she exclaims "in the jag?!" and his awesomely smirky posh reply is "Oh, I'm sorry, are there other cars? I was unaware". He also gives her some pretty cool morale talk that I could definitely relate to:

" There are millions of them. You can't beat them, believe me.{bastards - he teaches Helen to learn the phrase "fucking bastards" whenever she runs into infuriating people, to say it to herself as a sort of vent for the frustration). You can only hope to find a way to live quietly among them Sitting and reading in this window, with all my antiques and books... you wouldn't know it by looking at me, but I'm a revolutionary."

Elegant Man In Mirror by Leon Gordon

King Charles Spaniels

1952 Green Jaguar Convertible

Aside from the discussion of mental illness, there is an underlying story of people trying to live up to what their parents envisioned they would be, and hating to fall short. Helen views images of her mother as a young, glamorous lingerie model, and as an adult, perhaps trying to replicate some of that glamor for her own life, finds work as a live model for college art classes. Once, Helen even wears one of the slips her mother posed in to one of her own art classes, a "rose petal pink" slip Helen always favored in the photos of her mother. It is also something, along with her mother's hair braid, that she keeps as a sort of a keepsake for a mother she can't decide if she ever truly loved or not.

Live Modeling for Art (and Money)

"Rose Petal Pink" Slip

Helen cuts off her mother's gray hair braid  as a sort of memento, after killing her.

Helen's realization of trying to live up to her mother's mystique and beauty:

"...whereas  I felt my mother had possessed, throughout her life, true beauty, I had always believed that I lived on borrowed time. I knew that the same bones that  made my mother a domestic Garbo underpinned my more average looks.  My father, though delicate around the eyes, was also long-jawed and bulbous-nosed, and so I had inherited just enough of his qualities  to blunt my mother's."

Greta Garbo, a famous Hollywood Silver Screen icon,
 known for her unique beauty and reclusiveness.
Helen's mother is compared to Garbo a number of times in the novel.

Along these lines, and, I think, my favorite quote from the entire book:

"As the years went by, I could see more sunspots on my chest and shoulders, and the resilient skin with which I had been blessed had slackened no matter what inverted poses I was able to do in yoga. Flexibility, in the end, did not trump gravity. I lived on the borderline between a Venus just holding it together and Whistler's mother in the buff."

Venus de Milo sculpture,
believed to be the work of Alexandros of Antioch 130-100 BC

Birth of Venus Sandro Bottcelli 1486

Whistler's Mother

I was so tickled by that - even at 29 I can relate! If you wonder about Sebold's topic choices, I've heard her say in interviews that she likes to write about those things that happen but no one likes to talk about that she feels should be talked about, such as the desire sometimes felt to kill an overbearing, demanding parent, or the process of grief when your child is kidnapped and murdered. She also shows that there can be beauty and humor in the midst of utter tragedy and pain. Such as in this book, Helen feels honest remorse for feeling she had to kill her mother but also felt that her mother was racing faster and faster toward severe dementia, and as much of a pain in the ass she felt her mother to be a lot of the time, she cared for her enough to want to save her a shred of dignity, and so snuffed her mother out during a moment when it was clear in her mother's eyes that her mother was not mentally present. To Helen, her mother being mentally absent meant that she wouldn't register pain, or think fast enough to struggle, and in the process, as a final gift and sign of respect to a parent she could give her mother a relatively quiet way out with some dignity still in tact rather than the image she had of the way she felt her mother would have died in a natural situation - drooling and soiled. Helen even takes time to clean the body after her mother dies, later telling her ex-husband "she soiled herself right before, she wouldn't have wanted to be found like that." I don't know that I could pull off a mercy killing for one of my parents, but Sebold is successful in making me see Helen's side. Yet another moment of "you just don't know until it happens to you". 

Well... til next time! As much of an education as these books have been, I'm planning on hittin' up some slightly lighter material next post... stay tuned!